A Viennese Christmas


“We are NOT paying to attend Mass.”  He stormed away from the cathedral.  I hurried after him, my boots crunching on snow in the square.  People were lined up in front of a sign that read “KARTEN/TICKETS,” but we walked in the opposite direction.

“It’s because the Vienna Boys’ Choir is performing,” I offered by way of explanation.  He whirled around so fast I thought his scarf might strangle him.

“Fine! Let them buy their tickets.  We don’t pay for Mass.”  He slowed his pace a little and I caught up.  We were tired.  We’d purposely stayed up for this event.  But he was right.  Boys’ choir or not, we don’t pay for Mass.  So we walked back through quiet streets, our feet cold and numb, back to the little hotel we’d found the day before when we arrived in Vienna for Christmas.

Subdued, we offered each other a sincere ‘Merry Christmas,’ and waited for sleep to come so it could be Christmas morning.  I opened my eyes in the dark, tried to see through the blackness.

Christmas Day brought a fresh start: Mass at St. Stephen’s, no tickets needed, and an exchange of small gifts.  Neither of us had much money that year, so our Christmas presents were simple: gloves, soap, a paperback book.  Treasures.

Around noon, we went out in search of our Christmas meal.  The streets, with unpronounceable names like Rauhensteingasse and Tegetthofstrasse showed nothing but beautiful display windows of closed shops.  Everything was closed.  Finally we found a restaurant with a sign: “OFFEN”  Whatever they were serving, we were eating.

We stepped down into a dimly lit bistro where the only thing on the menu was Hungarian goulash.  We ordered, added some red wine, and worried about the cost.

After our Christmas goulash, we walked to the train station.  I had hoped to place a call home but the lines were all busy and I was told the wait would be hours.

We were missing our families.  Although we never could have foretold it, by the next Christmas, we’d both be without our dads.

“Look at the drunks, Marth,” my friend whispered.  I looked at him and frowned. He shrugged,  “Somehow I thought that on Christmas they wouldn’t be there.  But I guess even on Christmas drunks have to drink.”

Back at the hotel, we looked again at our gifts and thought about home.  I went into the bathroom and wrote the entire lyrics to Joni Mitchell’s “California” on the bathroom wall, even though I’d never been to California.

The next evening, we went to the Opera House.  Students could watch an opera for the equivalent of 90 cents.  We had to stand in the back, but it didn’t matter.  I watched couples glide past, men in black tuxedos with dark shiny slicked-back hair, women in sparkly evening gowns.  And the opera!  We saw two while we were in Vienna: Wagner’s ‘The Flying Dutchman’ and Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni.’

After our indulgent Christmas goulash feast, we had our last meals in Vienna at the famous NordSee restaurant (a German chain of eateries).  Fish and chips on the cheap, and it was just delightful to see fine Viennese women, in fur coats and giant fur hats, sweep into the NordSee, pile their coats onto empty chairs, leave their hats on, and chat over lunch.

Christmas was over for 1978, and going home meant returning to Fribourg.  It was good to go home.